‘Play, reflected back, is the creation, and validation of a meaningful relationship with the world’ –Winnicott in van Eerden 2010.

As a mother I marvel at the deep focus and intricate layers of play my 15-month-old engages in, and as a therapist who works with children through play-based techniques, I also see the important developmental processes at work. I am often humbled at a child’s ability to make sense of their world through this complex mode of exploration and expression. While there are countless benefits to play in early childhood, I wanted to bring focus to one particular approach and that is the importance of child-led free play with a parent or caregiver. Harvard University’s Dr. Jack Shonkoff explains the most important thing a parent can do to support their child’s brain development is to engage with them in play.

For children play is a special space where the imagination can be explored. It is a space of experimentation, of learning and synthesising, a space of negotiating relationships and meeting others. Play can offer a safe space where children can explore material that is presented to them, whether that be mastering a physical activity, or trying to make sense of a difficult playground experience. Paying attention to the content of our children’s play can give parents an insight into what the child is presently processing or working through. It is important to support our children with moments of child-led free play, so that the child may have space to explore and express what is front-of-mind in their world.

So, what is child-led play with an adult? Child-led play is where children take the lead and we as adults play a supporting role. Our attention is engaged with the child’s process, listening carefully to what their play is calling for and being ready to offer just that. So if we get “peekaboo-ed” be ready to provide the appropriate playful surprise and joyful response.

By doing this, you are affirming the child’s inner world in an external reality. This supports the child’s ability to form a meaningful relationship with the world. These kinds of interactions tell the child I am here with you, I hear you, I see you.

The idea in child-led play is to suspend the impulse of directing or steering the play. Try and balance structured and learning based play every day with a short period of play that the young child leads you through.

The emotional, neurodevelopmental, and social benefits are significant. You can begin by asking your child, what do you want to play today? And then be ready to support creating the environment needed for that play (for example grab pillows and blankets to build a fort etc.). If the child experiences a challenge during play, offer some support, but try to let the child take the lead in overcoming the issue.

Child-led play can be a deeply satisfying experience for the child and parent. The child has the opportunity to be affirmed and applauded by the parent. The benefits of this simple process can include developing stronger bonds between the parent and child. The child will experience making decisions and following their own impulses, which often point to exactly what the child is needing to explore. This process may develop the child’s ability to focus, as we use our own focus and presence as way of modelling concentration and investment in the process. In these moments of child-led play, the child can feel validated and can experience having agency. This all leads to the very important emotional development that paves the way for healthy relating and social interactions. Play is the child’s language through which they come to know their worlds, being able to meet them in this way and being directed by their creativity is a wonderful way of connecting with your child.

By:  HAYLEY ROBERTS is an HPCSA registered Dramatherapist and practices in Douglasdale. She specialises in early childhood psychological, social, and behavioural support. Medical Aid rates apply. Cell: 0826141874

Adapted from Mike van Eerden: “The Creative Space of Play: D.W. Winnicott – On Luminous Grounds (Web. 23 Apr. 2016).